Reeling from the shock of another senseless act of violence, we search for “reasons” to comfort ourselves. We seem to feel safer if we can find someone or something to blame.
People blame the legal system, gun dealers, the media, psychiatrists and school officials for the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
Frightened and horrified, we search for answers to the “why” questions, hoping that if we can explain how someone didn’t do their job, then we and our children will somehow be protected from being in the wrong place at the wrong time when violence breaks out again.
Yet for such horrors as the Virginia Tech massacre, blame cannot be placed in any one place. Simple answers for complex problems may give temporary relief, but they are inadequate. Our challenge as human beings is to put our minds, hearts, energies and monies into finding solutions for the rampant violence in the world.
We must ask how we can begin to make changes in our daily lives to create a culture in which there is zero tolerance for violence, whether spewed across the airwaves or a dorm room. We are responsible for living and speaking with respect and compassion in the ordinary traffic patterns of our lives.
When we do not acknowledge our own capacities for inflicting pain and suffering on our loved ones, when we do not accept the evil that lurks in our own minds and hearts and when we treat other human beings as objects, we participate in perpetuating disrespect and harm.
Human beings unconsciously hurt each other–sometimes in ways that are so hideous that we turn away in disgust and horror, but more often in everyday, ordinary ways that demean, demoralize and diminish other persons.
An insulting remark, a put-down, a withering look, an obscene gesture–all are acts of violence carried out in “civilized” society. Labeling, name-calling, shunning–these slights build up over time and get played out on the playing fields and the killing fields of our world.
What happens around the kitchen tables of our homes gets played out around the negotiating tables of business and politics. What happens in the living rooms and bedrooms gets played out in the boardrooms and meetings rooms of corporations and churches. All of us bring the baggage of personal conflicts into our external affairs, inflicting on innocent others the pain or power struggles that we have not been willing or able to solve or resolve.
It is as wrong to kill innocent people anywhere as it was to kill students on the campus of Virginia Tech. Surely, we have come to a place in human history when we absolutely must step up to the plate of treating each other with radical respect and uncommon compassion, and we all can treat others with respect as we go about our daily tasks.
We can monitor the ways in which we speak to each other. We can choose to give respect to the persons we encounter in the ordinary traffic patterns of our lives. We can and must insist on patterns of respect in our most intimate relationships.
We can choose to do the hard work of taking our own moral inventory. Instead of assigning blame, we can make amends when necessary. We can apologize for what we do that offends another and ask for forgiveness when we have hurt someone we love. We can deal with the elephants in the rooms of our own homes and organizations, so that those elephants don’t stampede and crush innocent bystanders and children.
We can teach our children how to recognize, own and manage their anger and anxiety, as we learn how to manage afflictive emotions ourselves. We can model respect for all human beings, with no exceptions.
We can teach the ways of compassion, and we can help each other learn that tolerance for others as human beings is a good thing, whereas tolerance for rudeness, crassness and violence is never appropriate.
We can accept the hard truth that whatever is possible for one human being is possible for anyone, and so it is up to all of us, individually and collectively, to stop playing us-and-them games and accept that reality that we are all part of the human family. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. What is possible for “them” is possible for “us”. The problem in Virginia is about all of us.
We must learn the difficult skills of dialogue and negotiation. We must learn to hear each other.
We must learn to talk with each other in ways that build trust, strengthen connections and community, solve problems and make peace. We must stop shaming and blaming others and become accountable and responsible adults.
We don’t have to pass laws or form commissions to figure out ways of being civil and respectful to others. We must become intolerant to verbal, physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse of any kind.
Every act of respect, love, compassion and kindness, no matter how small, ripples out and out and out in the world, with effects we can neither know nor measure. All of us, working together, can change the world.
The stakes are high. Fear and hate keep leading us to places we can’t afford to go.
We must choose everyday, ordinary acts of courage and love, and we must begin now.
Jeanie Miley is an author and columnist from Houston.